Having fallen head over heels in love with the Balkans last year, I was determined to get to Bulgaria this year (and conveniently visit my friend living in Sofia). I was based in Sofia for my trip, but definitely didn’t have quite as much time to explore the city as I would have liked! I’d definitely recommend two full days in Sofia to see the main sights. Here are the top things to do and see in Sofia!
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The show-stopper in Sofia (and one of the symbols of the city itself) is this spectacular Bulgarian Orthodox church. Built between 1882 and 1912, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was created to honor the soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 (when Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman Empire). It is the second-largest cathedral in the Balkans (after St. Sava’s Cathedral in Belgrade, Serbia), and one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. There is a museum in the crypt with a huge collection of icons. While the museum charges a small entrance fee, there is no admission charge to any of the churches in Sofia.
St. Sofia Church
There are so many amazing churches in Sofia, but you can’t visit without seeing at least a few! St. Sofia (Sveta Sofia) Church is the church oldest in the city—it dates back to the 6th century—and is located just down the street from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. While St. Sofia Church might not look like much from the outside, the interior is intricate, and there is a fascinating underground museum that is well worth a visit. The museum exhibits the ruins of an ancient necropolis with lots of tombs, and other churches (including old mosaics). The Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the eternal flame are next to the church outside.
St. Nedelya Church
Another church you must visit in Sofia is St. Nedelya Church. The church originates back to the 10th century, but the present building dates from the mid-1800s and a restoration in 1933. In 1925, there was a terrorist attack by the Bulgarian Communist Party at a prominent military leader’s funeral that killed 150 people. The Bulgarian monarch, Tsar Boris III, narrowly missed death only because he was late to the service (as the joke goes in Sofia). The interior is absolutely stunning, and well worth a visit.
Other religious buildings
Sofia has no shortage of beautiful religious sites to visit. The Russian Church (officially the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker) is a beautiful Russian Orthodox church. The Church of St. Petka and the Saddlers is a tiny medieval church smack dab in the middle of the modern and ancient city with beautiful wall murals. The St. Sedmochislenitsi Church was formerly a mosque, and is set around picturesque gardens. If you want to visit a mosque, the Banya Bashi mosque, which dates back to the 16th-century (and is the only functioning mosque in Sofia). The Sofia Synagogue is the third-largest synagogue in Europe, and one of only two functioning synagogues in Bulgaria (the other is in Plovdiv). And to round off the many religions present in the city, the Cathedral of St. Joseph is a Roman Catholic church that was rebuilt in the early 2000s after its destruction in World War II. You’ve got plenty of buildings (and religions!) to choose from.
Free Sofia Walking Tour
I don’t normally do walking tours, but after I liked the one in Warsaw so much, I thought I’d try one in Sofia. I learned so much about the history of Sofia (and Bulgaria in general) despite the condensed area of the tour, our guide was a wealth of local knowledge, and took in so many of the big sites in the city. It lasted almost two whole hours! The tour goes every day from the Palace of Justice—there are multiple guides to break everyone up into smaller groups for the tour. I tipped our guide 5 lev (~2.50€ or $2.80 USD) for the tour.
Presidential Palace and Church of St. George
The home of the president of Bulgaria, the Presidential Palace is one government building you should definitely check out in Sofia. Besides its civil importance, the guards outside wear funny hats. If you go on the Free Sofia Walking Tour, you’ll be able to see the Church of St. George, the oldest building in Sofia that was built by the Romans in the 4th-century! The church has many different layers of frescoes inside. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit the church (and I’m not sure how to gain entrance to the courtyard since it’s attached to the Presidential Palace), but I hope to next time!
Another government building you should see is the National Assembly building, located just around the corner from the Presidential Palace. It was originally used as the headquarters for the Bulgarian Communist Party, but today houses some administrative offices for the National Assembly (Bulgarian Parliament). It was formerly topped with a giant red star (a symbol of communism), but following a protest by Bulgarians in 1990 it was taken down. The Bulgarian flag now flies from the same spot.
St. Sofia Statue
Sitting smack dab in the center of the city is the giant statue of St. Sofia—a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin used to occupy the same spot for it’s visibility. Erected in 2000, the statue is definitely a little risqué for a saint (is it that cold up there?!) and some people have said the statue is too erotic/revealing (she’s dangerously close to a wardrobe malfunction). Either way, it’s one thing in the city you can’t miss!
One of the coolest things in Sofia is the opportunity to walk through Roman ruins in literally the middle of the city. Right by the St. Sofia Statue and down a flight of stairs, you can walk through the remains of the ancient Roman city of Serdica (Serdica changed its named to Sofia around the 16th-century). While it’s been criticized for not being as authentic as it could be (you can tell an obvious difference—below the red line is the original Roman ruins, above the line is the reconstruction), it’s definitely something to see in Sofia. A lot of the ruins were actually discovered when they were doing excavations for the Sofia Metro! You can also see a large section of the East Gate if you walk through one of the pedestrian underpasses. If you visit the Serdica Metro station, you can see objects from the excavations displayed on the platform.
One of the main drags in Sofia, Vitosha Boulevard starts at St. Nedelya Church and the Palace of Justice and continues to the National Palace of Culture, with amazing views of Mount Vitosha (the mountain overlooking Sofia). There are loads of shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars lining the street. If the weather’s nice, definitely try to grab a spot outside—it’s great for people watching!
National Palace of Culture (NDK)
The National Palace of Culture (often abbreviated to NDK, the acronym in Bulgarian) is a huge convention and exhibition center, and is the largest of its kind in southeastern Europe. It was built in 1981 and has a beautiful park in front of it. There’s an amazing view of the city and Mount Vitosha from the restaurant/bar on the far side. You can also see the weird 1300 Years of Bulgaria monument, also built by the communists in 1981 on the spot of a former war memorial (which they demolished). The statue was built with cheap materials and has disintegrated into disrepair—there’s a huge fence around it to keep people out.
Monument to the Soviet Army
This giant monument was built in 1954 to honor the liberation by the Red Army in 1944. It has been painted many times by artists/vandals (depending on how you look at it), most recently and notably in support of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Revolution (and against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea) in 2014.
There are a few museums in Sofia to check out if you have the time. Unfortunately, I was extremely limited with my time and didn’t get to see any of them. If I could, I’d love to visit the Archeological Museum (with artifacts dating back to the Thracians!), the History of Sofia Museum (housed in a beautiful building that was formerly a bathhouse), the National Art Gallery (which is in a former palace), the National History Museum (located outside the city center, in Boyana), and the Museum of Socialist Art (which is also located outside the city center).
One of the things that surprised me the most (and that I liked the best about the city) is that Sofia is full of parks and green spaces. My favorite was probably the City Garden, with lots of fountains and the National Theater at one end.
By far my favorite thing that I ate during my time in Bulgaria was banitza (баница, in Bulgarian), a flaky pastry that is typically stuffed with a filling: cheese, sausage meat, vegetables (like spinach), or even apple! I had mine with cheese (Bulgarian sirene cheese, kind of like feta cheese) and it was so amazing that it gets its own mention on this blog post. It is basically a burek, one of my all-time favorite things about the Balkans! The best I had in Sofia was at Sofijska Banitza (Софийска Баница) somewhere in the center near the Confetti ice cream place Graf Ignatiev street.
Sofia is an excellent location for daytripping around Bulgaria. I did two daytrips during my time in Sofia, one to Boyana (full post coming soon!), and one to the Rila Monastery with Traventuria. While the Traventuria tour was great since it meant we could get to the monastery, it wasn’t anything special (although their buses did have free wifi). You could also visit Plovdiv and even Veliko Tarnovo on a daytrip from Sofia if you felt like it.
The Basics: Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, with a population of 1.26 million. Bulgaria as a whole has a population of 7.18 million. Bulgaria is a member of the EU, but is not currently part of the free movement Schengen Area—meaning Schengen visas are not valid in Bulgaria, and that there are normal passport checks in and out of the country and regular visa regulations (Bulgaria is currently in the process of joining the Schengen area). Bulgaria has kept their own currency, the Bulgarian lev, as the official currency. The official language is Bulgarian, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Besides Sofia, the other main tourist destinations are Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. Varna, on the Black Sea, is also a very popular summer beach holiday destination for Europeans.
Getting Around: Sofia is fairly walkable, but public transportation always helps. There are two lines (with different branches) of the Sofia Metro, which is one of the cleanest metros I’ve ever seen. Single tickets cost 1.60 lev (~$0.90 USD), which you need to buy from a machine in the metro station before validating it to get through the gates. The Metro does go to the train/bus station, and to Sofia Airport (Terminal 2 only). Buses (for example, to Boyana) are also 1.60 lev for a single journey. Validate your ticket once on board by perforating it in stamp machines.
Where I Stayed: I stayed with my best friend at his place on this trip, so unfortunately I can’t offer any advice on accommodation in Sofia. I do recommend staying somewhere central though, since my friend lived outside of the center and we spent a fair bit of time commuting in (and of money on metro tickets).
Sofia was such a cool city, and my quick trip definitely wasn’t enough time to explore all of it. I hope to go back to Bulgaria sometime soon!
Have you ever visited Sofia? Do you have any other recommendations?!